Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Fabergé egg reunited with missing surprise in Texas

Sunday, April 9th, 2017

Diamond Trellis Egg and elephant surprise. Photo courtesy the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences.An imperial Fabergé egg will be reunited with its original surprise for the first time since the 1920s in a new exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science (HMNS). Made of a translucent celadon stone and crisscrossed with a trellis pattern of rose-cut diamonds, the Diamond Trellis Egg is part of the McFerrin Fabergé Collection, the largest private collection of Fabergé treasures in the world, which is housed in the HMNS. The surprise inside, a jeweled ivory elephant wind-up automaton, was recently rediscovered in the Royal Collection and has been loaned to the museum by Queen Elizabeth II.

The Chain of the Order of the Elephant with Insignia, gold with enamel and table-cut stones. The Chain was possibly made in Copenhagen by the goldsmith Jean Henri de Moor after 1693; the elephant possibly by Paul Kurtz, 1671. The Royal Danish Collection, Rosenborg.Presented by Tsar Alexander III to his wife the Empress Maria Feodorovna (née Princess Dagmar of Denmark) for Easter in 1892, the Diamond Trellis Egg held an elephant surprise that was a virtually identical replica of the badge of the Order of the Elephant, Denmark’s highest chivalric order. The only differences are the materials — Fabergé used ivory instead of white enamel — and the automaton mechanism. It was the second egg Alexander commissioned for his wife to have a Danish theme. The first was the Danish Palaces Egg, presented to Maria Feodorovna on Easter, 1890. The surprise inside was a ten-panel folding screen with miniatures of the Tsarina’s favorite Danish and Russian palaces. After Alexander’s sudden death in 1894 at the age of 49, his son Tsar Nicholas II continued the tradition of Fabergé Easter eggs, gifting them to both his wife and to his mother. It was Nicholas who gave the Dowager Empress her third and last Danish egg, the Royal Danish Egg, now lost.

Ivory elephant automaton, side view. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017.The Diamond Trellis Egg and its elephant were confiscated from the Anichkov Palace in St. Petersburg, Maria Feodorovna’s home base, by the Bolsheviks in 1917. It was sold in 1930 by the Antikvariat, the agency tasked with selling off Russia’s cultural patrimony to raise money for the Soviet government, probably to Emanuel Wartski, although there are no records of the sale.

At some point in the saga the three parts of the egg, the base (now lost), the elephant and the egg got separated. In 1935 King George V bought the little elephant without knowing it was part of an Imperial Egg or even that it was made by Fabergé. It has been in the Royal Collection ever since, on display in one of the state rooms for decades.

Ivory elephant automaton, front view. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017.In 2015, Caroline de Guitaut, Senior Curator of the Royal Collection Trust, was cataloguing the collection when she noticed the elephant figurine bore a resemblance to the surprise in the Diamond Trellis Egg as described in Fabergé’s ledgers: “ivory figure of an elephant, clockwork, with a small gold tower, partly enamelled and decorated with rose-cut diamonds,” with “a black mahout…seated on its head.” The Trust’s restorers and clockmakers painstakingly took the elephant apart down to the internal mechanism. They finally found the confirmation of the figurine’s origin under the top part of the castle on the elephant’s back. There was the unmistakable hallmark of Carl Fabergé.

Windup hole under the diamond cross. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017.When the cleaned and restored elephant was put back together, curators were ecstatic to find that the mechanism still worked. They slid the key into the hole hidden under the diamond cross on the elephant’s side, wound it up, and the little guy walked and nodded his head like he’d never lived through war, revolution and separation from his home egg.

The reunited egg and elephant will help inaugurate the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s new gallery dedicated to the Artie and Dorothy McFerrin Collection and its whopping 600 pieces of Fabergé. Fabergé: Royal Gifts featuring the Trellis Egg Surprise opens April 10th. The elephant will be on loan for a year before returning to the Royal Collection.

There are some beautiful views of the glittering egg and surprise in this brief video in which Caroline de Guitaut and Joel Bartsch, President of the Houston Museum of Natural Science, discuss the discovery of the missing piece. There’s an all too brief glimpse of the elephant’s movement at the 1:57 mark.

This video from the Royal Collection Trust, on the other hand, shows nothing but the automaton’s motion, starting with the wind-up. He raises his head every few steps. It’s absurdly cute.

Oh hey, guess what?

Ivory elephant automaton, rear view. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017.

ELEPHANT BUTT!

 

Share

Ancient mummy shroud found in museum storage

Monday, April 3rd, 2017

Brown parcel paper opened to reveal shroud. Copyright National Museums Scotland.Curators at the National Museums Scotland have discovered a unique ancient mummy shroud folded up in brown postal paper in storage. Senior curator of Ancient Mediterranean collections Dr. Margaret Maitland found the shroud during the course of a thorough examination of the museum’s Egyptian collections in anticipation of a new permanent ancient Egyptian gallery opening over the next two years. At first, she didn’t even know it was a shroud. The only information on the parcel was a note written by a curator in the 1940s and sealed in a World War II service envelope identifying the contents as having come from an ancient tomb in Egypt.

Shroud is carefully unfolded. Copyright National Museums Scotland.The textile inside the paper wrap was too dry and brittle to be unfolded and examined right off the bat. First conservators had to gently humidify the fabric to soften it enough so it could be unfolded without damage. The humidification and unfolding was so painstakingly done it took close to 24 hours. The results were more than worth the wait.

Bottom of shroud is unfolded. Copyright National Museums Scotland.Conservators found the textile was a full-length linen shroud painted with the image of the deceased as the god Osiris. A full-length painted shroud from Roman Egypt is an extremely rare artifact. Only a handful of comparable finds are known, and this one is unique because it comes with extensive background information. Hieroglyphics painted on the shroud identified the deceased as Aaemka, the son of the high official Montsuef and his wife Tanuat. Montsuef and Tanuat are known to have died in 9 B.C., which makes it possible to date this shroud with exceptional precision.

Dr. Margaret Maitland:

Shroud unfolded. Copyright National Museums Scotland.“To discover an object of this importance in our collections, and in such good condition, is a curator’s dream. Before we were able to unfold the textile, tantalising glimpses of colourful painted details suggested that it might be a mummy shroud, but none of us could have imagined the remarkable figure that would greet us when we were finally able to unroll it. The shroud is a very rare object in superb condition and is executed in a highly unusual artistic style, suggestive of Roman period Egyptian art, yet still very distinctive.”

Shroud undergoes conservation. Copyright National Museums Scotland.The shroud was discovered in a tomb originally built around 1290 B.C. in Thebes. Its first residents were a chief of police and his wife, but the tomb was repeatedly looted and reused by later officials. Montsuef, Tanuat and Aemka appear to have been the last to make use of it before the tomb was sealed in the early 1st century A.D. It was excavated in the 19th century, and artifacts from the tomb wound up in the collection of the National Museums Scotland. Montsuef and Tanuat’s relics went on display. Aaemka’s, for some reason, went into storage and was forgotten.

Shroud conservation detail. Copyright National Museums Scotland.Now the son has been reunited with his parents, and the shroud is on display for the first time since its discovery in The Tomb: Ancient Egyptian Burial, which opened on March 31st and closes September 3rd, 2017. The wooden box of Amenhotep II with its recently rediscovered fragments is also part of the exhibition, as are a great many exceptional funerary artifacts from Egyptian tombs. The exhibition is something of a capsule collection, a glimpse into the deep bench of the National Museums Scotland’s Egyptian collection before it finally gets a permanent gallery of its own.

 

Share

LoC, Smithsonian buy Harriet Tubman photo

Saturday, April 1st, 2017

Previously unknown photograph of Harriet Tubman found in Emily Howland's carte-de-visite album, ca. 1865-8. Photo courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.The previously unknown photograph of Harriet Tubman recently discovered in a carte-de-visite album compiled by Quaker abolitionist and educator Emily Howland has been acquired by the ideal owners: the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The album was sold at a Swann Auction Galleries auction in New York City on March 30th for $130,000 plus a $32,500 auctioneer fee. The joint purchase allowed the institutions to be able to afford the exorbitant cost.

The collaboration ensures these pieces of American history will be accessible to the public in perpetuity.

“It is a distinct honor to have these photographs that tell an important part of America’s history,” said Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “We are pleased and humbled to work with the Library of Congress to ensure that this rare and significant collection will be preserved and made accessible to the American public.”

“To have a new glimpse of such key figures in American history is rare indeed,” said Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. “Through this extraordinary collaboration, these images will be forever part of our shared heritage and will be a source of inspiration for many generations to come.”

The pre-sale estimate was $20,000 to $30,000, which was always modest given the great historical significance of the earliest known picture of Harriet Tubman. Add to that the 43 other rare photographs of prominent personages from the period in the album, including the only known photograph of John Willis Menard, the first African American man elected to (although never seated in) Congress, and there was little doubt the album would exceed the estimate. Well aware of this, the Library of Congress and Smithsonian pooled funds from existing donations to ensure they had the wherewithal to bid successfully against collectors with deep pockets.

The two institutions will be perfect partners in this endeavor. Both of them have unparalleled expertise in the conservation of historic documents and photographs and long-standing commitments to the digitization of their massive collections. In keeping with their dedication to making the historical patrimony in their care as widely accessible to the public as possible, the entire Howland carte-de-visite album will be digitized as soon as possible and high resolution photographs of each of the 44 pictures will be made available online for the free use of scholarly researchers and history nerds alike.

 

Share

Gainsborough painting slashed by attacker back on dispay

Tuesday, March 28th, 2017

"Mr and Mrs William Hallett" ("The Morning Walk") by Thomas Gainsborough, 1785. The National Gallery, London.At 2:15 PM on Saturday, March 18th, 2017, Keith Gregory walked up to Mr and Mrs William Hallett by Thomas Gainsborough, hanging in the British paintings room of London’s National Gallery, and slashed it twice with a pointed metal object. The man was immediately apprehended by the Gallery Assistant with the aid of members of the public. They detained him until the police arrived and arrested him. The next day the 63-year-old man was charged with causing criminal damage.

The painting was removed to the museum’s conservation lab where conservators were relieved to find the “damage was limited to two long scratches which penetrated the paint surface and the canvas support, but did not break through the canvas lining.” National Gallery experts determined the repairs to the pigment layers would be relatively easy to make and it would not be long before the Gainsborough was back on public view. Ten days later, it was hanging in its spot in room 34 of the National Gallery again.

Larry Keith, the National Gallery’s director of conservation, said that the museum believed that the painting was attacked with a drill bit or a similar object. He said that the restoration process had included re-adhering loose paint that was still attached to the canvas; filling in areas of paint that had been scratched away, with a filling agent; painting the affected areas with new paint that had been closely matched in color and texture to the original; and, finally, covering the entire canvas with a light varnish.

Acknowledging that the particulars of the attack were unusual, Mr. Keith said that such interventions into a canvas were not rare. “Any painting of that age will almost always have had a history of interventions,” he said, calling them part of “the natural life cycle of old master paintings.”

Mr and Mrs William Hallett, better known as The Morning Walk, was painted in 1785 when Thomas Gainsborough was at the height of his popularity. Originally a landscape painter, in the late 1740s Gainsborough switched focus to portraiture when he realized that was where the money was. At first his sitters were the local big fish in a small pond. Looking to appeal to a higher class of clientele, he studied the portraits of Anthony van Dyck and by the 1770s had moved up from country squires to counts and dukes. In 1780, he received his first commissions from King George III and Queen Charlotte. Many more would follow until his death in 1788.

The couple in The Morning Walk are William Hallett and Elizabeth Stephen, then 21 years old and soon to be married. Gainsborough depicted them walking through a country wood with an attentive white dog at Elizabeth’s side. Mr. Hallett is wearing a black silk velvet suit, while Elizabeth is clad in a gown of ivory silk with a black sash around her waist. This was a popular fashion among the Georgian aristocracy, having a portrait painted of them in a Romantic, pastoral setting wearing their most elegant clothes.

Mr. Gregory is currently out on bail and is scheduled to appear before a higher court next month. There is no word yet on what his motivation may have been. It seems such an innocuous painting to arouse slashing ire, but that’s never stopped people with ill-intent from fixating on certain artworks before.

 

Share

V&A receives major Fabergé donation

Monday, March 27th, 2017

Carl Fabergé, workmaster August Hollming, Cigarette case, red and green gold and platinum, Russia, c. 1899-1908 (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, LondonThe The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) is the proud new owner of nine exceptional works by Carl Fabergé donated by the son of the late Kenneth Snowman, one of the world’s most prominent Fabergé experts. Two rare works by 18th century goldsmith Johann Christian Neuber were also part of the donation. Nicholas Snowman donated the pieces in the Kenneth and Sallie Snowman Collection under the Cultural Gifts Scheme, a program that allows the donation of significant cultural heritage objects in exchange for tax savings in the amount of 30% of their market value, in this case a discount of £615,000 ($772,000).

Carl Fabergé, Hissing Baboon, chalcedony with rose-cut diamonds, Russia, about 1907 (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, LondonThe Fabergé pieces in the donation include four animals masterfully carved out of chalcedony and agate for Queen Alexandra, wife of King Edward VII and Tsar Nicholas II’s aunt, herself an accomplished wood carver. Alexandra’s Fabergé animals are a hissing baboon, a sturgeon, a kangaroo and a chinchilla. Other animals in the collection include a seal carved out of obsidian with such dazzling attention to detail that the skin texture is perfectly matched to the stone, and a quartz hare inspired by Japanese netsuke. One of the objects, a rock crystal letter opener, has a moving sentimental connection to Carl Fabergé, Letter opener, rock crystal, gold and rose-cut diamonds, Russia, 1900 (c) Victoria and Albert Musem, Londonthe last of the Romanovs. It was a present given by Tsarina Alexandra to her onetime English governess, Miss Jackson, for Christmas in 1900. Miss Jackson had become a surrogate mother for Alexandra after her own mother died from diphtheria, contracted during her tireless nursing of her entire family when they were stricken by the disease. Alexandra was just six years old when her mother died, so Miss Jackson provided much-needed support to the bereft child.

Carl Fabergé, Kangaroo, banded agate with rose-cut diamonds, Russia, ca. 1907 (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, LondonKenneth Snowman is a Fabergé legend. The son of jeweller Emanuel Snowman and Harriet Wartski, daughter of Morris Wartski, founder of the Wartski company which, thanks to Emanuel’s buying trips to the Soviet Union in the 20s and 30s when Fabergé had dropped out of cultural consciousness, became the leading dealers and experts in Fabergé’s exquisite Imperial Eggs and the many jeweled and enamelled treasures he made for the aristocracy of pre-Revolutionary Russia. Born in 1919, as a child Kenneth played with Carl Fabergé, Sturgeon, grey-black banded agate, Russia, ca. 1907 (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, Londonsome of the nine Imperial Eggs his father brought home from the Soviet Union. Little wonder, then, that as an adult he become a published Fabergé scholar, curator and world-renowned expert. When his father-in-law died, he became chairman of Wartski, which you might recall played an integral role in the stranger-than-fiction saga of the lost Imperial Egg found by a scrap metal dealer in the US midwest.

Nicholas Snowman’s choice of the V&A was a tribute to his father’s deep bonds with the institution.

The donor, Nicholas Snowman, son of Kenneth, said: “In 1977 my father curated a major Fabergé exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum to honour the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. He was devoted to the V&A.”

Carl Fabergé, Chinchilla, chalcedony and gold with sapphires, Russia, about 1907 (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, LondonHe said following the latest donation the V&A now “possesses the most significant public collection of Fabergé in Britain and its important collection of gold boxes has been enriched enormously.”

Tristram Hunt, director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, said: “Nicholas Snowman’s Cultural Gift is the most important donation of Fabergé ever made to a British public collection and will greatly enrich the V&A’s jewellery holdings. It is an act of great generosity and cultural philanthropy.”

Ring, gold with sardonyx cameo of Elizabeth I, England. Cameo, 1570-1600; Ring, 1630-45 (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, LondonUnderscoring the generosity of the act is a 13th object Nicholas Snowman donated to the V&A, only he didn’t do it directly. He deliberately donated a 16th century cameo portrait of Elizabeth I later mounted on a ring to the Art Fund who then (by arrangement) donated it to the V&A. He did this in recognition of the Art Fund’s hugely successful campaign to acquire the Armada Portrait for the Royal Museums Greenwich.

Johann Christian Neuber, Snuff box, gold with specimen stones, Dresden, c. 1785-90 (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London Carl Fabergé, workmaster Mikhail Perkin, Box, gold and white enamel with an agate cameo lid, c. 1886-99, Russia (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Johann Christian Neuber, Watch and chatelaine, gold with hardstones, Dresden, c. 1770-75 (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London Carl Fabergé, Hare, smoky quartz with rose-cut diamonds, Russia, 1880-1915 (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

&nbsp

Share

Vindolanda toilet seat to get setting worthy of its greatness

Friday, March 24th, 2017

Tablet 343, Letter from Octavius to Candidus concerning supplies of wheat, hides and sinews, late 1st c., early 2nd c. A.D. Photo courtesy the Trustees of the British MuseumThe Roman fort and settlement of Vindolanda just south of Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland is perhaps best known for the 1,700 wooden writing tablets from the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. that have been found there, preserved for 2,000 years in the site’s anaerobic soil. Because of the unique insight this record of daily correspondence gives us into the daily lives of the ancient Romans and Britons who lived at Vindolanda, the tablets were voted Britain’s top archaeological treasure by British Museum curators in 2003. They have been extensively studied and displayed at the Vindolanda Museum.

Less known are the many other wooden objects discovered at Vindolanda. Almost 1,500 artifacts have been unearthed from that blessedly waterlogged soil — cart axles, bread shovels, potter’s wheels, plank flooring, joists, that amazing inscribed barrel stave and my personal favorite, the only Roman wooden toilet seat ever discovered.

Alder wood water pipes. Photo courtesy the Vindolanda Trust.They even found intact water pipes made of alder wood logs, bark still on them, that had been drilled through the length with an auger, creating a hollow center 5 centimeters (two inches) in diameter. There were 30 yards of pipes joined with oak junction boxes to create a network of water mains supplying Vindolanda with fresh water from a local spring. The ends of the logs were tapered to fit a hole in a block of oak. On the other side of the block another hole was drilled and another tapered log fitted into it. That was some quality joinery. With nary a single iron or lead fitting to keep the pipes together and almost two millennia after they were installed, the alder water pipes were still working when they were excavated in 2003, carrying fresh water to a building that archaeologists believe may have been a hospital. Lead pipes, even tile ones, are fairly common in the Roman world, but wood pipes are very rare — usually only the metal collars survive — and ones still in working order are rarer than hen’s teeth. As far as I was able to ascertain, the Vindolanda pipes are unique.

As rare and historically significant as they are, none of these wooden treasures have been exhibited. Conserving, stabilizing and storing them once they have been removed from their protective environment is expensive, difficult work. Creating a display space with the technology to ensure the long-term preservation of the wooden objects while making them viewable to the public is a far greater challenge still.

Preliminary plans for the Unlocking Vindolanda's Wooden Underworld exhibition. Image courtesy the Vindolanda Trust.A Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant has gotten the ball rolling. The Vindolanda Trust was able to secure a development grant of £20,400 ($25,400) from the HLF to develop the plans for a new addition to the site’s already excellent museum. The new space will be dedicated solely to the wooden artifacts that have been hidden away in storage for years.

The popular museum will be expanded to create a new gallery with special display cases allowing temperature and humidity to be kept at safe levels. Not only will this mean their story can finally be told but it will also ensure they survive for future generations to enjoy.

Visitors will also hear the incredible survival story of the collection – from the science behind how they lasted two millennia, to their conservation and the research that is uncovering their origins.

Now, obviously the new gallery will cost vast sums more than the initial grant. This is just the first step. The Vindolanda Trust must have a fully developed and budgeted plan for the new gallery before the HLF can consider a much larger grant for the actual construction phase. Once the plans are complete, the Trust will apply for the full grant of £1,339,000 ($1,670,000). Then we can gaze in awe at the toilet seat and give it its proper respect. Some might be tempted to take a bunch of selfies squatting in front of the display case, but we’re all too dignified for those sorts of shenanigans, am I right?

Wooden toilet seat after cleaning. Image courtesy Vindolanda Trust

 

Share

Algiers subway dig reveals 2000 years of history

Thursday, March 16th, 2017

Public building, ca. 5th century A.D., unearthed in Algiers. Photo by Fayez Nureldine/AFP.Construction of a new subway line and station in Algiers has revealed archaeological remains dating from Roman times through the French colonial period. Remains were first discovered in 2009 during archaeological surveys along the proposed subway line. The full excavation began in 2013, recovering archaeological materials going back to the 1st century B.C.

The site is in the historic Casbah area of Algiers which was founded in the 3rd century B.C. by Punic Phoenicians as a small trading post. It became a Roman colony in 146 B.C. after the fall of Carthage, and its name was Latinized from Yksm (“Island of the Seagulls”) to Icosium. Icosium became part of the Roman client state of Mauretania in the late 1st century B.C., which became a Roman province under Caligula in 40 A.D. Mauretania was divided into two provinces, Mauretania Tingitana and Mauretania Caesariensis, the latter of which included Icosium.

Remains unearthed in Algiers subway excavation. Photo by Fayez Nureldine/AFP.During the chaotic decades of imperial musical chairs, barbarian invasions, epidemics and economic woes that became known as the Crisis of the Third Century, Berber tribes made incursions into what is now Algeria, contracting the areas of Roman control. A fortified city on the sea, Icosium held out a long time, but was sacked in 371 A.D. by the Berber Prince Firmus during his revolt against Romanus, the military commander of Rome’s Africa Province. Icosium never recovered and disappeared from the historical record in the 5th century.

The city of Algiers was founded by Berbers in the mid-10th century. The Casbah, a fortified citadel common in North African cities, was built over what had once been Icosium on the cliffs overlooking the sea. In the late 15th century Algiers was conquered by Spain, but their occupation would not last. The Ottoman admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa tossed the Spanish out permanently in 1525 and established Algiers as the capital of an Ottoman regency which would become the empire’s primary base in the region. The Ottoman Regency of Algiers lasted until the French took the city in 1830.

Roman architectural remains unearthed in Algiers subway excavation. Photo by Fayez Nureldine/AFP.The French pillaged Algiers, destroying religious sites like the Es Sayida mosque in the Casbah. Between the French and the long line of conquerors that preceded them, it didn’t seem likely that there would be much of Algiers’ history left to find below the surface. Nobody imagined they’d unearth such a wealth of archaeological materials, even from the long gap between the fall of Icosium and the rise of Berber Algiers.

Finds over the 3,000 square meters (32,300 square feet) of the excavation site include a public building with mosaic flooring dating to the 5th century, a 7th century Byzantine necropolis with dozens of graves, large numbers of Roman-era architectural elements — columns, capitals, pediments — ancient catapult balls and 385 coins. The excavation even found parts of the Es Sayida mosque, a thoroughly unexpected survival given that the French colonial government built a square over the levelled mosque and named it King’s Square, renamed Martyrs Square after Algeria won its independence in 1962.

Mosaic floor detail. Photo by Fayez Nureldine/AFP.Algeria has some of the most significant Roman architecture still standing in the world, but none of it is in Algiers. That makes the metro ruins exceptionally important, so much so that the city completely changed its plans for the line and station. The Martyrs Square subway station, originally planned to be 8,000 square meters in area, will now take up only 3,250 square meters and will have a museum built into it. The train line is going way underground, as much as 115 feet deep, to avoid interfering with the ancient remains.

The Martyrs Square station is set to open in November, part of an extension to the main metro line inaugurated in October 2011.

The museum will open shortly afterwards, covering 1,200 square metres and organised chronologically.

Some of the remains will be exposed to a depth of over seven metres.

“In Rome or Athens, museums present particular periods, whereas here the visitor can embrace the whole history of Algiers over 2,000 years,” [archaeologist and excavation co-director Kamel] Stiti said.

 

Share

Nerd Party at the Getty with Dr. Irving Finkel

Sunday, March 12th, 2017

Dr. Irving Finkel examines Atra-Hasis Ark Tablet in the British Museum. Image by Dale Cherry.Dr. Irving Finkel, world-renowned cuneiform expert, Assistant Keeper of Mesopotamian tablets at the British Museum and author of the thoroughly delightful book The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood, is bringing his enormous brain and limitless enthusiasm for ancient Mesopotamian history and culture to the United States. On April 1st (no, this is not a clever months-in-advance prank; I deserve neither such praise nor such censure), Dr. Finkel will be giving a lecture at the Getty Villa museum in Malibu. The topic will be the Ark before Noah: the ancient Babylonian Flood stories that predate the version in Genesis.

The Atra-Hasis Ark Tablet, ca. 1750 B.C. Image courtesy Douglas Simmonds.Dr. Finkel’s translation of a previously unknown Babylonian clay tablet from around 1750 B.C. recounting the Akkadian version of the Flood myth starring Atra-Hasis as the Noah figure revealed a treasury of engineering details about the construction of the great ark found on none of the other surviving Atra-Hasis tablets. It was round, for one thing, and made of woven and coiled palm-fiber ropes slathered with bitumen. There was enough detail in the tablet to allow for an attempted recreation of the ark on a much reduced scale, of course. A wonderful documentary was made about the attempt.

In the lecture, Dr. Finkel will talk about the tablet and his translation and research. It will be held at 2:00 PM in the auditorium of the Getty Villa in Malibu. Tickets are free and can be booked by phone or on the Getty’s website. The auditorium opens at 1:30 and seating is first come, first served.

Royal Game of Ur, ca. 2600 B.C. Photo courtesy the Trustees of the British Museum.April 1st is a Saturday. Make a weekend of it, because on Sunday, April 2nd, Dr. Finkel will be back at the Getty Villa being even cooler than he was the day before, if that’s possible. You see, in addition to being able to sight-read cuneiform and write grippingly about ancient tablet inscriptions, Dr. Finkel is also an expert on the Royal Game of Ur, a stone, shell and lapis lazuli board game from 2600 B.C. that was discovered in the Royal Cemetery of Ur in Iraq by archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley during the 1926-1927 dig season. It is believed to be a race game where the aim is to beat your opponent to the finish line, like backgammon, which may be a descendant of the Royal Game and/or its older Egyptian cousin Senet.

Front of tablet with diagram showing how to use the central squares of the Royal Game of Ur to tell fortunes, 177-176 B.C. Photo courtesy the Trustees of the British Museum.Much of what we know about how the game was played comes from, you guessed it, a cuneiform tablet also in the British Museum. This tablet was inscribed in 177-176 B.C. by Babylonian astronomer Itti-Marduk-balatu, who was kind enough to sign his work. By then the game was thousands of years old, and the way it was played had changed. It was also used for divining the future, which is why an astronomer would be an appropriate person to explain the whole system. The front of the tablet has a diagram explaining how to use the central squares to tell fortunes.

As curator of the British Museum’s enormous 130,000-piece clay tablet collection, Finkel has had opportunity to research Itti-Marduk-balatu’s instructional.

Back of tablet describes rules for playing the Royal Game of Ur, 177-176 B.C. Photo courtesy the Trustees of the British Museum.This extraordinary board game, played for a good three thousand years over half the ancient world with unceasing enjoyment, has bewitched Irving Finkel of the British Museum since boyhood. Tutankhamun of Egypt played it, as did Assyrian king Assurbanipal. Due to Finkel’s extensive research of an ancient cuneiform tablet containing original rules, we can see why the game endured. In this illustrated talk, he describes some of the remarkable discoveries and heart-thumping adventures of a lifetime’s fascination. Halfway through a magnum opus on the subject, he offers fascinating insight into board game history and the lives of the Assyrians. Be prepared to sit on no more than the edge of your seats.

I CAN’T BE ANY MORE EXCITED THAN THIS ALREADY, GETTY PEOPLE!

Or so I thought. Then I read this next bit in the press release.

Join Dr. Finkel either before or after the talk for a friendly tournament featuring the ancient game of Ur. Learn how Ur was played, compete against your friends and family, and make your own version of a game.
1:00-2:00 p.m. and 3:00-4:00 p.m.
Villa Education Studio/Court
This is a free, drop-in program.

Pardon me while I get a paper bag to hyperventilate into. This is so insanely cool. All you Californians, California-adjacents and California-bound must get to the Getty Villa the first weekend in April. Anyone who plays the Royal Game of Ur with Irving Finkel must report back and I will write you up like the superstars you are. (Get pictures!)

 

Share

Only surviving view of Renaissance Lisbon street identified

Wednesday, March 8th, 2017

Most of Lisbon was at church when the earthquake hit. It was November 1st, 1755, All Saints’ Day, and the devout were at mass. The first shock struck at 9:40 AM with an estimated magnitude of 8.0 on the Richter scale. It lasted no more than six minutes, according to eye-witness accounts, but wreaked immense havoc in that time. Fissures as much as 15 feet long opened on the city streets. Almost all of the stone churches, particularly vulnerable as the tallest structures in the city, collapsed, killing the worshippers within. Aftershocks and 10:00 AM and noon compounded the destruction.

Then came the fire. The candles in the churches and chapels are believed to have started dozens of small fires all over the city. The three massive tsunamis that struck the city in short succession after the quake only added to the devastation. They didn’t even have the decency to help put out the fires. Fed by the destruction of the quake and the impossibility of dousing the flames, the conflagration spread throughout Lisbon, burning for five days. By the time it was all over, 85% of Lisbon was in ruins, tens of thousands were dead and millions of pounds in trade goods were lost.

The city was rebuilt with notable efficiency, but its medieval downtown was irretrievably lost, including its main commercial thoroughfare, the Rua Nova dos Mercadores. There was little surviving evidence of what Lisbon had been. Paintings of the city were typically distant panoramic views, not the details of individual streets.

One very salient exception survived and was rediscovered in 2009 (pdf) by Annemarie Jordan Gschwend and Kate Lowe hanging on the walls of Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire. Kelmscott was briefly home to both William Morris, of Arts and Crafts Movement fame, and the pre-Raphaelite painter and collector Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Morris and Rossetti leased the country estate for a time, and the latter lived there for a few months in 1871 and then off and on for two years (1872-1874). He left abruptly after a falling out with Morris, leaving much of his treasured art collection behind in his haste.

An avid collector of Old Masters when they could still be had for a song, Rossetti trawled the print shops, art and antiques shops of London for bargains. On April 3rd, 1866, he wrote to watercolorist George Price Boyce that he’d made an offer on a wonderful piece and hoped Boyce would stop by the shop to give it a look.

It is a large landscape with about 120 figures of the school of Velasquez — not by the great V. himself. I must needs feel pretty
sure, though it is so fine it almost might be but in abundance of interest as to subject & in grandeur of landscape, nothing could
well be more delightful.

His bid was accepted. In a letter to Edward Burne-Jones a couple of months later, Rossetti was considerably less circumspect about the authorship of his new treasure, calling it “the undoubted and stupendous Velasquez.” He was wrong both times. The painting was neither by Velasquez nor by his school. He did get the peninsula right, at least.

Rossetti is known to have altered his Old Master paintings, overpainting them, “restoring” them, cropping them so they’d fit in his rooms which were crammed to the gills with paintings already. He took a drastic approach to the not-Velasquez. Some time between the purchase in 1866 and his departure from Kelmscott eight years later, Rossetti cut the wide panorama in two and framed them to hang as companion pieces. Yup, another one for the “because people are crazy” file. I mean, he’s so enthralled with the “120 figures” depicted in the piece but then he chops it in half? Nuts.

The view of Lisbon captured in the painting gives it international significance. The Rua Nova dos Mercadores was Lisbon’s largest road and the commercial center of the city. There are records of it going back to the 13th century. By the 16th century, Portugal was the capital of a global empire and the Rua Nova dos Mercadores offered every kind of luxury import — cotton textiles from India, silks from the Far East, Ming porcelain, exotic medicines (rhino horn, bezoar stones) — in a dozens of shops. Records from 1552 count 20 textile shops, 11 bookstores, six porcelain shops and nine drug stores occupying the ground floors of the 90 or so buildings lining the street.

The architecture of the street — the iron railing, the portico with 149 columns, the tall narrow houses with flat roofs at each end and peaked roofs in the middle — was one of the key pieces of information that allowed Gschwend and Lowe to identify it as Lisbon’s Rua Nova dos Mercadores.

Here’s a virtual recreation of the street as it was before the earthquake.

There was a lot more business going on that just road traffic retail. The iron fence in the midground of the painting was a sort of velvet rope. Within its protective confines, merchants, bankers and assorted salesmen made deals and talked shop without having to rub shoulders with the hoi polloi. The painting depicts these wealthy traders and money men dressed in black cloaks and hats, a look known as the Spanish style, mingling behind the iron fence, while in front and to the side street vendors, children, farmers, labourers, performers, assorted foreign types and slaves hustle and bustle.

The high proportion of Africans in the picture was another of the key features that identified it as a depiction of pre-earthquake Lisbon. Lisbon was unique for a European city of its time for its large number of black people, mostly slaves, imported from Portuguese bases in western Africa. For more than a hundred years, Portugal dominated the slave trade and transported thousands of them to Lisbon itself. By 1551, an estimated 10% of the population of 100,000 was black. In 1578, about 20% of the 250,000 Lisbonites were black.

It’s not just the multicultural population in the picture that underscores Portugal’s imperial reach. Even the animals attest to it. In the second half of the painting, you can see a dog mauling a bird in the bottom left corner. Look closely at that bird. It’s a turkey, a New World bird that Portugal introduced not just to its capital, but to India, Africa and the Far East as well.

The global empire captured in the details of Rua Nova dos Mercadores will be the focus of a new exhibition at Lisbon’s Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga. The Global City: Lisbon in the Renaissance aims to recreate some of the Lisbon obliterated in the earthquake. The Rua Nova paintings will be displayed in Lisbon for the first time (that we know of), and will be accompanied by precious objects and artworks from all over the empire, like an intricately carved snake-themed ivory salt cellar base from Sierra Leone and a Processional Cross once owned by Catherine of Braganca made out of a narwhal tusk and containing the relics of Saint Thomas Becket. All told, the museum has assembled an unprecedented group of 249 pieces from 77 lenders from private collectors to public institutions.

Share

The last days of the Romanovs

Tuesday, March 7th, 2017

Marking the centennial of the Russian Revolution this year, The Hague Museum of Photography is hosting an exhibition of pictures capturing the last days of the Romanov family before their execution by Bolshevik soldiers. The photographs were taken by Pierre Gilliard, a tutor to the Romanov children and an intimate friend of the family.

Pierre Gilliard was born in Vaud, Switzerland, in 1879. He became a teacher and, Swiss tutors being all the rage in aristocratic circles, in fall of 1904 accepted a position as French tutor to Duke Sergei, the son of Duke George of Leuchtenberg who was Tsar Nicholas II’s cousin. The family spent their summers at the Duke’s datcha at Peterhof on the south shore of the Gulf of Finland. Peter the Great built the Grand Palace of Peterhof, known as the Russian Versailles, while working on the construction of St. Petersburg, but he preferred his little maisonette of Monplaisir to the grandeur of the big house. Tsar Nicholas II avoided the giant formal palace too, spending the summers with his beloved family in the charmingly oxymoronic Cottage Palace.

Tsarina Alexandra and the Duchess of Leuchtenberg were close friends and during the summer of 1905 the two families socialized often. That’s when Gilliard first met the imperial family. In September of 1905, Gilliard picked up two new pupils: the Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana, Nicholas and Alexandra’s eldest daughters, then 10 and eight years old respectively. In his memoirs he described them and their mother as polite and considerate and his pupils clever, albeit very much behind where he thought they should be in their command of French.

The third daughter, eight-year-old Grand Duchess Maria joined her sisters’ lessons in 1907, and Grand Duchess Anastasia followed in 1909. Gilliard continued to tutor Duke Sergei until 1909, after which he focused on his imperial students. He taught the girls in the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo five times a week as long as they were in residence, and when the Grand Duchesses failed to make as much progress as Gilliard, the Tsar and Tsarina had hoped, he joined the family during their months-long summer sojourns at Livadia Palace in the Crimea.

It is a testament to how trusted a member of the royal household Gilliard had become that he was given the responsibility of tutoring the Tsarevitch Alexei. The heir to the Russian Empire was a very sick little boy, afflicted terribly by the hemophilia that Queen Victoria’s genes had spread throughout the royal families of Europe. (Alexandra’s mother was Princess Alice, Victoria’s favorite daughter.) His illness was a state secret and hidden from everyone. Gilliard was one of a very small inner circle who knew how sick he was and from what.

So close was he to the Tsar’s family that he chose to join them in exile after the February Revolution and Nicholas’ abdication in August of 1917. The family and a select group of the most loyal family and retainers were first confined to Tsarskoye Selo for five months and then sent to Tobolsk, Siberia, where they lived in the Governor’s Mansion. It was no Grand Palace, but it was downright luxurious compared to what was to come. When the White Army got too close to Tobolsk in April of 1918, the Romanov’s were moved to Yekaterinburg. They were imprisoned in Ipatiev House, the home of local industrialist, and were subjected to a million petty indignities by their Bolshevik guards.

Gilliard went with them as far as he could. He made it to the train platform at Yekaterinburg, but then, for some unfathomable reason, the Bolsheviks refused to let him out of the train and told him he was free to go. He didn’t go. He remained in the city hoping to catch a glimpse of the imperial family, a glimpse he never got. The Tsar, Tsarina, Tsarevitch and Grand Duchesses were shot and bayoneted to death on July 17th, 1918.

In Gilliard’s memoirs, Thirteen Years at the Russian Court, he wrote movingly about what a loving, close family they were, all the more so under the extreme duress of their last days. He describes entering Ipatiev House on July 25th after the fall of Yekaterinburg and the Bolshevik announcement that the Tsar, and only the Tsar, had been executed while the rest of the family was in a “safe location.”

I went down to the bottom floor, the greater part of which was below the level of the ground. It was with intense emotion that I entered the room in which perhaps – I was still in doubt – they had met their death. Its appearance was sinister beyond expression. The only light filtered through a barred window at the height of a man’s head. The walls and flour showed numerous traces of bullets and bayonet scars. The first glance showed that an odious crime had been perpetrated there and that several people had been done to death. But who? How?

I became convinced that the Tsar had perished and, granting that, I could not believe that the Tsarina had survived him. At Tobolsk, when Commissary Yakovlev had come to take away the Tsar, I had seen her throw herself in where the danger seemed to her greatest. I had seen her, brokenhearted after hours of mental torture, torn desperately between her feelings as a wife and a mother, abandon her sick boy to follow the husband whose life seemed in danger. Yes, it was possible they might have died together, the victims of these brutes. But the children? They too massacred? I could not believe it. My whole being revolted at the idea. And yet everything proved that there had been many victims.

The Soviets continued to deny having slaughtered the imperial family until 1922. Gilliard stayed in Siberia for three years, helping magistrate Nicholas Sokolov investigate the murders. He married Alexandra Alexandrovna Tagleva, Grand Duchess Anastasia’s former nanny and one of the loyal few who went into exile with the Romanovs in 1919. They returned to Switzerland in 1922 where Gilliard returned to his study, becoming a professor of French at the University of Lausanne in 1926. He and his wife both interviewed Anna Anderson, the woman who claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, and concluded she was a fraud. Gilliard wrote a book debunking her claims, but there was so much mystique around the alleged Anastasia that plenty of people bought her ludicrous story until DNA evidence proved once and for all that she was a mentally ill Polish factory worker by the name of Franziska Schanzkowska. He also debunked the first of many Alexei impostors.

An avid amateur photographer, Gilliard took many pictures of the family at leisure — Alexei playing with his dog Joy, the Grand Duchesses putting on a Moliere play, the Tsar shoveling snow — and on official occasions. The original negatives are now in the collection of the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne. For the new exhibition at the Hague Museum of Photography, more than 70 enlarged gelatin silver prints have been made from those original negatives. I hope they digitize them all because there are a lot of sad, grainy, copies-of-copies of Gilliard’s pictures out there. It would be wonderful to be able to see the last happy days of the Romanovs in high resolution. The exhibition runs through June 11th of the this year.

Share

Navigation

Search

Archives

May 2017
S M T W T F S
« Apr    
 123456
78910111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
28293031  

Other

Add to Technorati Favorites

Syndication